Pakhi Kartik, 25, film-maker, travelled with some friends to the Northeast, to the state of Assam. Besides the capital city, Guwahati, and its celebrated Kamakhya temple, they visited the Kaziranga National Park, which is a Unesco World Heritage Site recognized for its conservation success story, and sampled local life in the area around Jorhat.
Is safety a concern in Assam?
Safety is a bit of a concern because of the insurgency, though we didn’t really have a problem. Kaziranga is heavily protected, so no difficulty there. Everywhere I went I found the people in general very gentle and pleasant. Outside the city, people were initially somewhat apprehensive of strangers, because of the violence they live with. Guwahati, however, is very much a modern city; the day we were in the city, the Miss Guwahati contest was going on. Young people are quite fashionable, conversant with English, and the girls are outgoing and confident.
You visited the Kamakhya temple. Why is it special?
Kamakhya is situated on a hill in Guwahati. It’s supposed to be one of the most powerful Shakti temples in India. According to local legend, when Shiva’s wife Sati (Durga) killed herself by self-immolation, Vishnu cut her into 51 pieces in order to stop Shiva’s destructive dance. Sati’s yoni (reproductive organ) fell in Guwahati, where this temple was built. It’s quite different from most temples: The shrine is covered with a sari and is in a cave; with the prasad, we were given red sindoor. It’s considered auspicious for menstruating women to visit the temple; for some, worship includes sacrifice—we saw some hens being sacrificed. There’s believed to be an underground spring here, though we didn’t see it. I really enjoyed the view from the top—besides the beautiful architecture and carvings of the temple, we could see gorgeous tea gardens and the sprawl of Guwahati city. Besides the temple, we also visited an ancient, elaborately- carved shrine which is said to date back to the era of the Mahabharata.
Did you go to a tea garden?
We stopped at a tea garden, but didn’t stay there. We watched the women with their little bamboo baskets, plucking tea leaves and singing their happy and melodious Bihu folk songs.
Any encounters with the famous one-horned rhinoceros at Kaziranga?
We didn’t see the elusive rhino for a long time during our safari, even though we’d driven deep into the park. Finally though, one of them came out of the lush green jungle for a drink of water and satisfied its thirst and our search. Kaziranga is also an amazing place to see hundreds of species of birds, including the lovely spot-billed pelican that we glimpsed. Our guide told us an interesting legend about how Kaziranga got its name: A young man called Kazi fell in love with a village girl called Ranga. Their parents opposed the match, so they would secretly meet in the forest. One day, they disappeared into the forest and were never found, so the area came to be named after them.
What was your exposure to local life?
We drove eight hours from Guwahati to Jorhat, a fabulous drive through the hills. We spent a few days in the area around Jorhat, and had a chance to see how rural people live in their thatched bamboo houses, making all kinds of interesting objects with bamboo. At one village, women were weaving typical local cotton saris—white with red or green borders. Sadly, these women get only Rs20 for the sari, including the material and their labour—obviously, they are terribly exploited.
We were there during November-December, so the weather was very pleasant. The hills were misty, the air cold and everything so very green. We stopped at little shacks and ate a typical local meal of bland fish curry and rice, as well as Tibetan-style momos, fried rice, noodles and soup. Wherever we ate, I was quite amused by the atrocious spelling on the menu. For instance, our hotel in Jorhat served butter ‘toch’ (toast) for breakfast.
As told to Niloufer Venkatraman. Share your last holiday with us at firstname.lastname@example.org